Tying the shoe down is just wrongfooting it

Dear Dr Khanna,

I refer to the report of your interview by Straits Times senior writer Ms Cheong Suk Wai dated 8 Dec 2009.

You said good governance, as demonstrated by China, Singapore and Malaysia, is a way to create a successful, balanced society with social stability and equity and that it works. Is China a balanced and equitable society? Is there any successful, balanced, stable and equitable society that does not have good governance? The answer has to be no if your purpose is to say that good governance is why a society becomes successful. So as long as we see a successful society, it must have good governance. That’s probably the easiest thing to say without necessarily saying anything. Why do some countries have good governance, why do other countries have bad governance? If good governance means successful countries, then the question of why countries have good governance goes back to the question of why do countries succeed? So we’re back to the same age old question and we haven’t really learnt anything have we?

But before we ask ourselves why countries succeed, we need to distinguish various degrees of success because clearly, Singapore’s success is quite different from that of Malaysia’s. Malaysia experienced racial riots and churches being burnt recently and its per capita GDP has never been quite as near as Singapore’s over the last four decades or so. Since our achievements have been quite different, by your definition, the degree of good governance must have been quite different as well. But both Singapore and Malaysia were British colonies and inherited the same set of governing rules, systems and institutions. Yet, the outcome is so different. Perhaps our leaders have been very different? Perhaps Singapore has been blessed with the most talented leaders? If that is so, then rightfully, all societies that have achieved the same success as Singapore ought to have been blessed with the same gifted leaders. Now, only Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea have achieved the same success as Singapore in terms of the economic growth over the last four decades. Yet, do we ever hear of gifted leaders that have steered Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea over the last four decades? No. What is the chance that out of hundreds of third world countries emerging from the ruins of the Second World War, only the four East Asian economies of Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea have been blessed with gifted leaders? If we say that gifted leaders are equally probable of appearing all around the world, what is the probability that all four would appear in East Asia? Close to zero. So ‘leaders’ isn’t the answer we are looking for either. To really find an answer to why societies succeed, we need to look at what is common between Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea and not give useless ideas like societies succeed because of good governance.

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